During the last week of school, I set aside my Spanish Immersion Human Geography curriculum for a class period in order to host a special presentation. That presentation was led by five of my students. All of them are teenagers from Central America; all of them immigrated to the United States within the last three years; all of them, save one, made the journey alone; and all of them are now living in the U.S. as refugees.
Their stories are literally amazing. This was evident in the astonishment on my other students’ faces as the five Central American boys shared their experiences of hours spent crammed into semitrailer trucks and trunks of cars, hiding from both Federales and narcotraficantes as they trekked across the Mexican desert, occasionally happening upon the corpses of failed migrants from the past and fending off snakes and coyotes as they tried to find sleep in the montes at night.
Immigration had been a topic that we studied earlier in the quarter. We learned terms like “push factor” and “pull factor,” “chain migration” and “quota,” “unauthorized immigrant” and “refugee” and how these things all connect to the current immigration crisis at our southern border. At the end of that unit, we also had a discussion — a Socratic seminar about immigration in the U.S., what we think about what’s happening and how we think our country should respond to it. Opinions ranged across the board, some echoing President Donald Trump’s call for a border wall, some advocating for a more welcoming immigration policy, and many taking more nuanced positions. My five Central American boys were conspicuously quiet during this discussion, but their presentation on this last Tuesday of class undoubtedly caused some of their classmates to reconsider some of their previously held positions.
I did not facilitate this presentation in hopes of carrying out some hidden liberal agenda that would turn all of my students into advocates for open borders and sanctuary cities, or convince them to vote Democrat in the 2020 election (most of the students are freshmen, so they won’t even be eligible). Like any source that we consider in my classroom, I saw this presentation as an opportunity to offer my students a lesson in perspective — what this issue might look like to five individuals who have experienced it rather intimately. And while I do hope that students will take these perspectives into consideration when forming their own opinions on this particular issue, I do not think that compassion for these young men and others like them needs to be nor should be the sole consideration that they take into account.
It would be a mistake to advocate for an immigration policy based solely on emotions like compassion. While the desire to help people in need is an admirable one, it is foolish to think that the U.S., even with all its relative wealth and resources, could offer comfort and refuge to all those who seek it, not only from Mexico and Central America, but from all of the world’s more troubled places. Compassion can and should play a role in policymaking, but so should realism and practicality, and they do not need to be mutually exclusive. For example, while I hate the oft-repeated Republican lie that congressional Democrats are advocates for “open borders,” I am also annoyed when any proposed border security measure — be it wall, barrier, or border control agents — is automatically labeled as racist, even though in some cases, it probably is.
Many people levy this accusation at President Donald Trump, and while I would agree that many of his comments are ignorant and insensitive, I’m not sure that he is a racist. I certainly cannot point to any utterance that represents definitive proof of hatred in his heart toward Latin American migrants. But what I am certain of is that Trump’s proposed immigration policies are dramatically lacking in compassion.
He has tried to argue otherwise. In one of his more well-known statements on the matter, he said that “tolerance for illegal immigration is not compassionate” but “actually very cruel,” since it encourages human trafficking that may not take place if the border were more secure and immigration policies were more stringent. There is an argument to be made there, but that argument cannot qualify as compassionate if it does not address the situation of people who are sufficiently vulnerable to be taken advantage of by human traffickers in the first place. A wall would probably reduce the number of people seeking refuge at our southern border, but it would do nothing to alleviate the suffering that influenced those people’s decision to make the harrowing journey that my immigrant students described.
With Trump, it’s also not just about what he says but how he says it that suggests a lack of compassion. It is not necessarily uncompassionate to say something like, “I think we need to secure our southern border, perhaps with a wall or structure, before we can begin to address the myriad other issues that contribute to the humanitarian crisis in Central America.” However, it is something very different to start a nativist “Build the wall!” chant at a rally packed almost exclusively with white people, some of whom likely scream those words with a fervor at least partly rooted in racist attitudes. And Trump does nothing to discourage that.
I think those chanters might think twice about their choice of words and tone of voice if they were given an opportunity to sit in on a presentation like the one given from the Honduran and Guatemalan boys in my ninth-grade Human Geography class. That’s not to say that they would necessarily abandon their desire for a “wall,” but perhaps attaching some real human faces to the issue of immigration would push them to consider it with the nuance and complexity that it deserves.
I’m not sure what effect this presentation had on the thinking of my native-born students. I did not assign any sort of reflection, and have no hard data to gauge any potential ideological shifts. However, I do suspect that even my most conservative-leaning students might be more hesitant to stand behind any policies that would revoke their classmates’ refugee status, especially after hearing their stories.
And I think that’s a good thing. Compassion is something that we should try to cultivate in the leaders and decisionmakers of tomorrow. Perspective-taking is something that should influence the way that we think about issues, and ultimately arrive at conclusions. If we are going to make decisions to erect walls or ban refugees, then those decisions should hurt us, not excite us. Because even if those decisions end up being the right ones, they also guarantee that human suffering will go unalleviated. And if someone does not possess a level of compassion that allows them to feel the harmful impact of those unfortunate circumstances, then they should not be the one making those policy decisions.
Bill Boegeman, of Robbinsdale, is a social-studies teacher.